Offspring by Michael Quadland

Michael Quadland’s Offspring (Red Hen Press, 224 pp., $18.95, paper) is a brilliant literary novel, with a gorgeous cover and great design throughout.  Hank Preston is the main character. He is a Vietnam veteran unlike most we find in recent novels.

It’s the mid-seventies, and Preston works in the Strand Bookstore, New York City’s famed used-book mecca, as a lowly shelver. He also has a part-time job as a sperm donor. One day when he shows up to donate sperm, he breaks the rule about riding in the elevator and meets the woman, Karen Allen Grave Tuckwell, who he is donating sperm to.

The third main character of this novel is Hank’s boss, Joey Maxima, a transgendered person. The characters interact; mayhem of a very combustible nature ensues.

I suspect that Quadland has no military experience, as the generic details about Hank’s tour of duty in Vietnam and his loss there of his best friend. Ted, to an explosion do not ring true to this reader. I admit that I spent no time in the jungles and little time in the rice paddies of Vietnam. But I was bothered enough by the wrong-footed details that I kept a list.

When Hank got “a weekend furlough” to Saigon, that really bothered me. I’d already been troubled by the author’s description of Hank’s airplane trip to Vietnam and the landing there, but these grunts slept together every night in a tent that they closed with a zipper and ate cold noodles and broth out of a can. They might have done that, but they would have called it some kind of c ration. These grunt details seemed truer to the Boy Scout experience than to the Army experience.

That said, I found Hank Preston to be a believable and likable character, albeit a tormented soul, and one this reader rooted for. I also rooted for Joey Maxima. But the third character, Karen Tuckwell, was too troubled for me to care much about or to think anything good was likely to happen for her.

The story is told in alternating character-oriented chapters, allowing each of the three main characters to speak out for him or herself. This method worked just fine, once I figured out what was going on.

Offspring held my attention the entire length of the novel, even though it is not a Vietnam War novel, and the war details stuck in my craw, which is a strong recommendation to a reader looking for a novel with a transgendered person and a positively characterized Vietnam vet, circa 1974.

For me, the most consistently interesting part of the novel was the era in which it was set, and how well the author brought 1974 New York City alive. I suppose I should admit here that I was not in the Big Apple in 1974. In fact, I have never been there, not even once. But after reading Offspring, I feel as though I’ve spent hours in the Strand Bookstore browsing the history section.

The author’s website is http://www.michaelquadland.com

—David Willson

Diamond on the Wall by Lawrence T. Vosen

Lawrence T. Vosen’s Diamond on the Wall: Memoir of the Youngest Green Beret in Vietnam (1967-1968) (CreateSpace, 152 pp., $9.95, paper) is a handsome, well-designed book, easy and fun to read. Larry Vosen joined the Army at the age of seventeen and was eighteen when he arrived in Vietnam, on July 20, 1967. He was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters in Nha Trang, one of the most beautiful towns in Vietnam, where he worked in the Finance Department.

Vosen provides a wealth of well-written and interesting details about that job and what he did in his off-hours to entertain himself. He played a lot of poker and won a lot of money, which he used to buy consumer goods such as Noritaki china and Seiko watches at the PX and through the PX catalog to send home to his loved ones.

He also managed to be on a finance run to Saigon on the first day of the 1968 Tet Offensive. That section of the book is a thrill to read as the well-armed Volsen was one of the soldiers who helped defend one of Saigon’s best hotels from the VC. Someone had to do it.

After a year in Nha Trang, Vosen transferred to a unit at Dak-Pek. The greatest part of his memoir relates to his service there working with a group of Montagnard Strikers in a Special Forces A-Team. The rest of his memoir is built around the recovery of the body of a Dust Off pilot, W1 James G. Zeimet, from Hill 851 where his helicopter crashed. That recovery mission and the complications of it make an engrossing read. The title of the memoir is a reference to the Vietnam War death of W1 Zeimet and the notice of it on The Wall in Washington.

Unlike the authors of many other Vietnam War memoirs, Vosen chooses to take the reader back home to his family to show how he was embraced on his return. He thanks them for the warm welcome and for the celebration and continued loving acceptance he received. That was moving stuff for this reader.

Vosen also says that “a lot of Vietnam veterans came home to spitting and anger and hatred and shouts of ‘baby killer.’”  He does not say he did. And I know I did not. So who is that returning soldier who encountered all of these things?  Somebody, I guess.

Vosen also takes the time in this brief memoir to delineate the damage Agent Orange has done to those who served in Vietnam, as well as though who live there.

I highly recommend this memoir to those readers who appreciate painful honesty and who have a curiosity about all aspects of the life of a Special Forces A-Team member in Vietnam.

—David Willson

The Dryline by Jack Grubbs

The Dryline (The Small Press, $16.99, paper) is the second book by Retired Army Brigadier General Jack Grubbs in his Seiler Murder Mystery Series, a projected trilogy. Grubbs served two tours in Vietnam and did 35 years of active duty in the U. S. Army. He also has a PhD from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which explains how he can provide his character, Tom Seiler, with believable and mind-numbing expertise to help his brother design an oil-extraction system that becomes much sought after by bad guys.

The plot involves ruthless oilmen who think nothing of premeditated multiple murder to get their hands on the Seiler oil-extraction system, which both good guys and bad guys are convinced will result in billions of dollars being made by the lucky patent holder. The book is all about who is going to end up with the patent—the Seilers who did all the inventing and designing, or the bad guys, who do the killing and conniving.

The book held my attention throughout, and it even had a couple of well-drawn canine characters, Catfish and Bear. The character and geography of Luling, Texas, came alive for this reader, and sometimes the book seemed more like an ethnography than a mystery.

Chapter 55, “The Watermelon Thump,” went on and on and did little to advance the plot. I learned more about what people eat in South Texas what kind of music they play at social gatherings than I wanted to know, but the very next chapter started with a bang, which redeemed that section of the book. Now that I’ve read this book, I will not need to visit Texas again.

It’s no surprise that with a sentence like, “It’s every Texan’s right to hold a burger in one hand and a beer in the other,”  lots of beer gets drunk, much meat is eaten, and large quantities of blood are shed in a brutal manner.  Vietnam veterans are sprinkled throughout the book, and they are never portrayed as evil, which I found a refreshing departure from most mystery novels that include Vietnam War veterans.

If you are searching for a techno-mystery to read that is set in Texas, give this one a chance.  Despite the high praise that one character gives to the current Texas governor, I kept reading until the end. That’s high praise for the engrossing plot.

The author’s website is www.GrubbsBooks.com

—David Willson

Cammie Up! by Steven A. Johnson

Steven A. Johnson served in Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1967 with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. Some of the high spots he hit in his tour of duty include Phu Bai, Khe Sanh, and Quang Tri.

Johnson served more than seventeen years in the Marine Corps, and even made it to Desert Storm, during which he was deployed to northern Norway. He has chosen to write his book, Cammie Up! Memoir of a Recon Marine in Vietnam, 1967:1968 (McFarland, 288 pp., $29.95, paper), an account of his time as a Marine in Vietnam in what he refers to as civilized dialogue.

Filthy language is in short supply. Because I was raised by a World War II Marine Corps veteran who fought at Iwo Jima, this choice surprised me, but who am I to question it? The narrative still manages to be believable, interesting, and sometimes humorous. It also communicates to the reader every possible detail of what it was like to be a recon Marine in Vietnam. Bugs, snakes, leeches, scorpions, rock apes, wapiti, lizards, rats, and ticks all make their appearances and lend much flavor to the narrative. The plants Johnson encounters are only a bit less dangerous.

Cammie Up! Is one of the few Vietnam War books I’ve read written by a grunt that places the blame for “How We Lost the War” (Appendix C,) squarely on President Johnson and Robert S. McNamara, and which also gives details of McNamara’s “shameful brainchild”, Project 100,000, also known as “McNamara’s Morons.” Johnson also casts blame at Walter Cronkite and Jane Fonda. I was disappointed that no blame was attached to General Westmoreland. John Wayne and REMF’s get lots of mentions, but not much blame.

This interesting, well-written, and well-edited memoir is the last word in thoroughness about what a Marine Corps Recon Marine did in Vietnam, and how he was trained to do that job. Also included are useful maps, an excellent index (which somehow omits Jane Fonda), a short glossary, and lots of interesting photos.

The text is enriched by the inclusion of many letters home written by Johnson, which give a lot of contemporary flavor. I was also gratified that the author included a lively, short section on his encounters in-country with Agent Orange, and what the fallout of that poison resulted in for many of us. I highly recommend this memoir to any reader who wishes to learn everything about Marine recon.

—David Willson

Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi by John M. McGrath

Retired Navy Lieutenant Commander John M. McGrath’s Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi (Naval Institute Press, 130 pp., $19.95, paper) is a small book that is divided about equally into text and drawings. Of all the books I’ve read about the POW experience in Hanoi, this one does the best job of communicating the unspeakable horror of being a captive of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

Where words are not enough, McGrath’s excellent drawings do the job of communicating precisely how the tortures worked to produce pain in the captives, and what the torture exacted on the flesh and bones of the captured Americans. Even the smell and feel of the filth and degradation forced on the prisoners is felt in this book, as much as words and drawings can do that.

McGrath’s book is a triumph of the spirit to survive suffering so as to return home to family and country. This return is shown in his final drawing.

I highly recommend this book—which was published in hardcover in 1975—written and illustrated from McGrath’s own personal experience in Hanoi when he was a POW from 1967-73.

—David Willson

That Time, That Place, That War—Vietnam by Margaret Brown

That Time, That Place, That War—Vietnam  (Xlibris, 336 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99 paper) is an illustrated reference book that sprang from author Margaret E. Brown’s experiences teaching about the Vietnam War by inviting veterans to address her classes.

The book is arranged alphabetically from “A is for Alpha” through to “Z is for Zulu.” In between are entries for Agent Orange, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than a multitude of others. The entry for King is in the “M” section, not in the “K” section, which is one of many challenges the book poses for a reader looking for answers. Also, there is no index.

I found no entry for the term “REMF,” but when I stumbled upon entries for “Saigon Warrior” and “Pogue,” I found some information on rear echeloners. There is a pervading attitude in the book that soldiers in the Vietnam War stationed in the rear are not quite real Vietnam War veterans.

Despite that bias, this reference book is fun to browse through because there is something unexpected to be found at virtually every turn of the page. It can also be frustrating for the same reasons.

It is a Vietnam War reference book like none other, and every Vietnam War library collection should order it. A lot of excellent poetry is placed here and there in the book, much of it written by important and talented veterans of our war. Sometimes a poem is juxtaposed with an entry that relates to it. That is a reference book innovation I never saw in my thirty years as a college reference librarian.

Buy this book if you are up for a challenge and want to use a reference book that dares to be different and strange, and one that is far from hidebound.

—David Willson

Gotcha: Al Qaeda Strikes Again by Rick D. Cleland

Rick Cleland is a former U.S. Marine Corps Captain who served in Vietnam in 1967-1968. His brief novel, Gotcha:  Al Qaeda Strikes Again (Trafford Publishing, 92 pp., $11.95, paper), is a critique of how the U. S. government is held captive by conventional thinking and an inability to be proactive.

The book’s hero, Marty Stabler, a Marine Corps officer, is fast-tracked to Captain and is assigned to find out what signals there had been prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and who had failed to be sensitive to them. Marty, carrying a federal agent’s ID card, starts poking around to see what he can find out.

We all know what can happen to an innocent who stirs a stinking pot. Read this little novel to find out what happens to Marty and where his poking leads him. The title sort of gives it away. There are some surprises and a few laughs in this book. It is worth the time it takes to read it.

—David Willson